By Adama Diarra and David Lewis
BAMAKO/DAKAR (Reuters) - Regional leaders will join international organizations in Bamako on Friday to try to narrow their differences over whether al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the north of Mali should be dislodged via military intervention or a more gradual political approach.
Mali remains paralyzed by a twin crisis with the leadership in Bamako still divided since a March coup that toppled the president and accelerated a rebel take-over of the north of the country, now firmly under Islamist control.
But regional and international efforts to deal with the situation, which has created a safe haven for Islamists and international criminal gangs, have been hampered by divisions over how to help.
Expectations for Friday's meeting are therefore low and progress will be measured in terms of whether participants can sustain or improve the momentum of talks rather than come up with a concrete plan of action.
The United Nations Security Council last week gave African leaders 45 days to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake control of the north.
With six hostages held by the Islamists and fearful of an attack on home soil, former colonial power France is eager for military action. Some West African leaders who worry that Mali's conflict will spill over into their own largely fragile states also favor military action.
But diplomats warn such intervention is months away and say there is still no agreement over whether an election should be held to replace Mali's caretaker government before a military operation takes place.
Public statements by France, the African Union and other officials ahead of the meeting have set the bar low, calling for consensus and coordination.
"It is about maintaining momentum and keeping up the unity of the international community," a diplomat who will be attending the meeting told Reuters, asking not to be named.
While it has not ruled out military force, calls for a dialogue-first approach have been led by Algeria, the region's top military power that fought a long war against Islamists in the 1990s.
Other neighbors such as Guinea argue no time can be wasted in mediation efforts.
"How are we supposed to negotiate with terrorists?" Guinean President Alpha Conde said on state television on Wednesday. "We have no solution but to use force."
The United States, which spent years working with Mali's army against al Qaeda's Sahara wing, has called for a more cautious approach, seeking elections to strengthen the political leadership in Bamako first, with a possible military intervention later if needed.
Little progress has been made so far by either regional or Malian mediators, and armed groups seeking to take part in talks have been ordered to distance themselves from both "terrorist" and criminal groups before they can take part in talks.
A document due to be adopted at the gathering, known as Mali's Support and Follow-up Group, highlights the threats faced but is thin on detail on how to address them.
"The armed terrorist and criminal groups ... are further entrenching themselves, including by attempting, and partly succeeding, to buy some level of support among local populations, taking advantage of their vulnerability," according to a draft seen by Reuters.
The process must be led by Mali's leaders and requires better regional collaboration and sustained support from the United Nations and interested world powers, it says.
The document is intended to focus the minds of the civilian and military leadership in Bamako, the same diplomat said.
Marches by hundreds of people in recent weeks on the streets of Bamako have highlighted splits in Malian public opinion, with some calling for swift foreign military intervention with others vehemently against it.
(Additional reporting by Saliou Samb in Conakry and John Irish in Paris; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Andrew Osborn)